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Five Magic Observations: The “Rim Protection” Edition

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Defense, funky stats, and a murderous block.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Orlando Magic Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the inaugural edition of Five Magic Observations, my weekly column about the Magic’s recent news and results. I’ll be hitting one topic in depth and offering a few thoughts on the rest, so let’s get right into it.

The Magic’s defense is faltering where it should be strongest

Defense was something of an obsession for me trying to figure out what went wrong with the Scott Skiles Magic, so I can’t help but touch on that first. So far, despite the community’s predictions to the contrary, the Magic are among the bottom ten defensive teams in the league, posting a 104.5 rating that’s good for 22nd. A lot of that comes from the first three games, in which the Magic averaged a 107.8 rating, but they haven’t exactly locked down the league since then, and the games against the Sixers and Wall-less Wizards have to be graded on something of a curve.

First, the good news: Orlando has allowed just 22 3-point attempts per 100 possessions, 4th fewest in the league per NBA.com (before Sunday’s games), with a league average-ish 34.6% accuracy on those shots. Allowing opponents to bomb from long-range with impunity was a problem last season, so it’s not surprising to see that they’ve improved in the category, whether by Frank Vogel’s schemes he’s brought from Indiana (where his teams were very good in that respect) or by pure regression to the mean. Preventing free throws has been a strong point for Orlando as well, as they rank first in free throws allowed (per game and per possession).

Where it all falls apart is around the rim, where Orlando is allowing a ghastly 61.3% on defended shots. Let that sink in a little further: this isn’t counting any open layups they give up. This is how well opponents shoot on shots by the basket that the Magic are actively trying to defend. Let’s break this down further, looking at the top four players by field goal attempts defended around the rim.

DFGA DFG%
Vucevic 52 59.6
Ibaka 42 66.7
Biyombo 22 50.0
Green 20 60.0

DFGA refers to the total number of field goal attempts around the rim that a player has attempted to defend this season, and DFG% is how well opponents shot on those defended attempts.

It’s not terribly surprising to see that Vucevic isn’t exactly shutting down opponents around the basket, though 60% represents an increase from his 54% mark last season. Green was never brought in to be a rim-protecting monster, but I was a little surprised that he has the fourth-most defended attempts. It makes sense, however, when you realize he’s played a lot of his minutes as the nominal power forward off the bench alongside Biyombo in the frontcourt.

Speaking of Biyombo, it’s no surprise that he’s the best rim protector on the team with any appreciable number of attempts. 50% is still below average by his own lofty standards, but it represents an improvement for the Magic regardless, and I expect that number to come down as the season goes along.

The big red flag is Ibaka, whose 66.7% allowed is the worst on the team among those with at least 5 DFGAs across 6 games (in other words, filtering out the likes of CJ Watson and D.J. Augustin). This is, uh, not good.

Ibaka’s defense doesn’t look good by the eye test, either. He often arrives late to contest shots around the rim, and when he does get into position he seems to lack the vertical oomph to seriously dissuade drivers. This throws a huge monkey wrench into the Magic’s plans for him. One justification for the trade was that, when paired with Vucevic, he could make up for Vuc’s lack of rim protection (with floor spacing as a bonus).

If he isn’t benefiting the Magic on the defensive end, Vogel may have to rethink the rotation. We may already have seen a little bit of that: Ibaka didn’t play any of the fourth quarter against Washington. Maybe that was because Biyombo and the rest of the bench were playing so well, but maybe it’s because he was playing poorly.

The upside is that if Biyombo and Ibaka can both improve their rim protection in a reasonable amount of time, the Magic should have all the makings of a great defense. Preventing close range and long range shots while limiting fouls and turnovers is the recipe for containing most teams in the league, and Orlando has three of those four steps down.

Which is real: The first three losses, or the last three wins?

Arguments that the Magic are closer to the team that lost their first three games:

  • When projecting a team’s performance moving forward, point differential matters. Those blowouts, statistically speaking, might say more about the Magic than three single-digit wins do, including a coin-flip nail-biter with Washington.
  • The Magic’s three wins were against pretty miserable teams. Philly is Philly, the Kings are the Kings, and Washington was second-night-of-a-back-to-back-on-the-road-and-without-John-Wall-Washington. Let’s see them beat someone good before we start celebrating, yeah?

Arguments that the Magic are more like their three wins:

  • We should have expected the Magic to start slowly. With a very new roster with a very new coaching staff, there was always going to be an adjustment period, one the Magic are still working through right now.
  • Biyombo was suspended the first game of the season versus the Heat, when Miami scored something like 73,000 points in the paint. Even a bad version of Biyombo might have been enough to swing that game significantly with just a little more paint presence.
  • The Magic have already started to correct the problems from their three losses. Their offensive rating has been about 10 points better from the first three games to the next three, and the defense a little less than seven points better. They’re assisting on a higher percentage of their shots and forcing more turnovers. Opponents shot 69% within 5 feet in the first three games, and 58% in the last three.

That one time Bismack Biyombo murdered Trey Burke

Adventures in small sample size statistics

  • Hezonja is the team’s best rim protector, allowing a measly 3-7 shooting for an incredible 43%.
  • Orlando’s best lineup is Payton-Augustin-Fournier-Vucevic-Biyombo, with a net rating of +173.6 points per 100 possessions in 1 minute of playing time. The worst is Augustin-Hezonja-Gordon-Ibaka-Biyombo, with a net rating of -225.2 in 2 minutes.
  • Stephen Zimmerman is the greatest rebounder of all time, grabbing 25.2 per 100 possessions.

What’s coming up next?

11/7 - Magic @ Bulls - I think the real reason that Ray Allen retired was because Dwyane Wade stole his basketball powers. It’s the only explanation for his ridiculous outside shooting stroke. Chicago’s defense looks vulnerable, though: they let the Knicks and Pacers run them over on consecutive nights last week, allowing 51.7% and 53.5% shooting in each game respectively.

11/9 - Magic vs. Timberwolves - A.K.A. “The game where Magic fans get upset that WE couldn’t draft Wiggins or KAT, but don’t worry, I’m not jealous, nope, don’t mind me.” The Wolves keep finding ways to throw away winnable games, so this might be another one where the Magic make another comeback when nothing seems to be working right.

11/11 - Magic vs. Jazz - This is actually the one that bugs me the most, from an envy standpoint. Two or three years ago the Jazz and Magic were opposite-conference mirror images of each other, both filled with young players and mysterious potential. Now, some people think the Jazz might get 50 wins, but the Magic aren’t even expected to get 40. That said, I think this game could actually be pretty good, though I couldn’t really tell you why, exactly.

11/13 - Magic @ Thunder - Let’s make petty jealousy the theme this week. I swear, if Victor Oladipo goes off for 35 on Sunday, Zach Oliver is gonna have to fire me before I start posting wild anti-Dipo propaganda like “Oladipo is actually just lip-syncing whenever he sings,” and “Oladipo actually manufactured KD’s signing with Golden State so he could become OKC’s new star,” and “Oladipo faked the moon landings.” Russell Westbrook will probably put up a kajillion stats, so it’s really about whether the rest of the Thunder can keep up. Hot take: I don’t think the Thunder are actually good.